Earlier this month, as the United States men’s national team prepared for its vital World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico, fans panicked when Jozy Altidore picked up a hamstring injury and was a doubt to play.
With Altidore’s recent scoring prowess and no clear No. 1 backup at striker, it was easy to see why fans were worried. However, when Michael Bradley picked up a gruesome ankle injury during the warm-up for the Costa Rica game and was unable to play, USMNT fans saw which player on the team was truly irreplaceable.
Only 26 years old, Bradley already has an amazing 80 caps for the USMNT and has become its best player. Atop American Soccer Now’s ASN 100 since the website’s inception, Bradley is the rock of the U.S. midfield.
In the Jurgen Klinsmann era (not counting the January camp or the 2013 Gold Cup when “B” squads were used), the team is 12-2-4 (win-loss-draw format) when Bradley goes 90 minutes. By contrast, when he doesn’t play, the team is 4-6-0.
Bradley’s value to the U.S. is that he can play a number of roles. As a holding midfielder, Bradley can play the “Makelele role” for the U.S., breaking up opponents' attacks and playing simple possession out of the back when the team needs to hold the ball.
He can play the “Pirlo role” for the U.S. as a deep-lying playmaker making 60-yard cross-field “can opener” passes that tear open opposing defenses. Finally, Bradley is capable of playing the “Lampard role" as a No. 8, running box-to-box and contributing equally to the U.S. attack and defense.
Over his seven years with the USMNT, Bradley has done all of these, sometimes within the same game.
As the U.S. heads into the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Bradley will remain the key piece of the puzzle for the USMNT. With his years of international experience (and Serie A and Bundesliga experience to boot), Bradley, along with Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley will give the team a solid veteran presence.
But it will be Bradley's leadership and skill in the center of the pitch that will be vital to U.S. success. Some journalists have even suggested that Bradley should be the team’s current captain.
While the U.S. has one of the deepest midfield pools it has ever seen with players like Jermaine Jones, Mix Diskerud, Sacha Kljestan and Geoff Cameron, Bradley is the cog that makes the machine go. None of Bradley’s compatriots have his combination of tactical discipline and awareness, technical ability, physical ability or grit. And he is by far the U.S.’ best player in possession—something long-lacking for the USMNT when playing superior opponents.
In all of the discussions about who should start for the U.S. in the middle, the question is always who should partner Bradley. And because of Bradley’s versatility, the U.S. can choose to play him with a more offensive or defensive partner, depending on what the game calls for. A skill set like that is something the U.S. will require in the World Cup when the USMNT's group-stage opponents will vary widely in terms of ability and tactics.
Years ago, during the Bob Bradley era of the United States men’s national team, there were some fans that claimed the only reason Michael Bradley started was because his father was the coach. Now, those claims of nepotism are a distant memory, and those who couldn’t see Bradley’s skill have fallen silent.
In Brazil, there won’t be a more important player on the field for the USMNT.
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